KASU

On 'White Fear Being Weaponized' And How To Respond

May 27, 2018

Since the arrests of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks in April, several more instances have been documented of mostly white people calling the police on people of color for various reasons, none involving breaking the law — like sleeping in a dorm's common room, shopping, leaving an Airbnb or golfing too slowly.

Starbucks is responding to the incident at its store by closing all of the chain's more than 8,000 locations around the country for some of the day on May 29 for racial bias training.

Are incidents like these, of white people calling the police on black people, more common than in the past, or do we just hear about them more?

"I think that we have to be careful not to say the scale has increased," says Khalil Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard University. "What has definitely increased is the amount of video evidence, the amount of copy — meaning what journalists are writing around these issues — and even the organizing around trying to do something about it."

He adds, "What we can know for sure is that we are having a national dialogue about it that is much more significant and increased in the number of participants in that dialogue than I've certainly seen in my lifetime."

Muhammad talked with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about how cellphone video and President Trump have affected how white and black people interact with police.


Interview Highlights

On why these incidents are getting more publicity now

The stakes seem to be much higher in our highly charged partisan moment. Our current president ran as a "law and order" candidate in a country with a long history where the notion of using the police as the foot soldiers of controlling African-Americans, limiting their freedom, deciding that they are indeed second-class citizens and enforcing those laws when they were legal in this country is a really big part of the problem.

And to evoke that mantra, to run on that mantra, to elicit the support of the entire community of professional police agencies means that we've now got citizens who are playing out this policy choice — this set of politics.

On the role of cellphone video

On one side of this, where citizens feel that it's OK to be afraid of potential black criminals, or brown ones, or Native American ones — they are not feeling like they are going to be censured for that. So that raises the possibility that more people will pick up the phone, or threaten.

On the other side of the ledger, people who were fighting against this kind of ethos in our country — this very punitive, racialized ethos — want to resist this now, so they're much more likely to pull out their cellphones ... and because of cellphone video and its ubiquitous role in this conversation, all of us are bearing witness to the problem.

On how history shapes interactions between people of color and police

Policing in general, it's got to begin to reflect on the fact that people who they've been policing under various forms of zero-tolerance policies or "broken windows" policies has created tremendous mistrust — and done tremendous harm in those communities.

And as such, every police encounter between a white caller and an African-American or Latino suspect doesn't come with a blank slate. It comes with a history. It comes with a present. And police agencies have to develop new training protocols that deliberately deal with that. I like to think that we could imagine a situation where these nuisance calls are quite distinctly handled from emergency phone calls.

On potential solutions

We've got to come up with some policies that raise the costs of bad behavior — of treating people differently than you would want to be treated. And that is a problem of white fear being weaponized, and that is a problem of police officers being a little too prickly when people are upset about having been judged harshly or inappropriately.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

On Tuesday, Starbucks will hold implicit bias training for more than 100,000 employees in response to the arrest of two black men at a store in Philadelphia. Since that arrest in April, more and more of these instances have been documented, instances with mostly white people calling the police on people of color for insignificant reasons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Remove yourself from our premises...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Please.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Please, because the authorities have been called.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No. We're taking our suitcases out of the house we're staying in.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Right. They said, like, luggage and stuff so...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Because there's three black people in the neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: You have your ID on you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Yeah, I do.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: All right. Can we see that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Why?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Because we got a police call for you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Unintelligible) and we need to make sure that you belong here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was a campus police officer saying we need to make sure that you belong here. The incidents you just heard happened at a golf course, a neighborhood in Rialto, Calif., and at a dorm at Yale. We asked Khalil Muhammad, a professor of race, history and public policy at Harvard, why he thinks these instances are getting more publicity.

KHALIL MUHAMMAD: I think they're getting more attention because the stakes seem to be much higher in our very highly charged, partisan moment. Our current president ran as a law-and-order candidate in a country with a long history where the notion of using the police as the foot soldiers of controlling African-Americans, limiting their freedom, deciding that they are indeed second-class citizens and enforcing those laws when they were legal in this country is a really big part of the problem. And to evoke that mantra, to run on that mantra, to elicit the support of the entire community of professional police agencies means that we've now got citizens who are playing out this policy choice, this set of politics. And that's a big, big deal.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How does that work, practically speaking? I mean, how does that play into this public debate and public conversation that we're having?

MUHAMMAD: Well, I think we could reasonably say, on one side of this, where citizens feel that it's OK to be afraid of potential black criminals or brown ones or Native American ones. They are not feeling like they're going to be censured for that. So that raises the possibility that more people will pick up the phone or threaten. On the other side of the ledger, people who were fighting against this kind of ethos in our country - this very punitive, racialized ethos - want to resist this now. So they're much more likely to pull out their cellphones, whether they're whites or blacks, and say, this is not OK. And because of cellphone video and its ubiquitous role in this conversation, all of us are bearing witness to the problem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are we seeing this problem, though, happen more? Or is it just now that people are documenting it and discussing it more?

MUHAMMAD: I think that we really just can't know for sure how much greater the problem is. What we can know for sure is that we are having a national dialogue about it that is much more significant and increased in the number of participants in that dialogue than I've certainly seen in my lifetime. We cannot keep up with the names or the footage itself of these instances. So I think that we have to be careful not to say the scale has increased. What has definitely increased is the amount of video evidence, the amount of copy, meaning what journalists are writing around these issues, and even the organizing around trying to do something about it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think the way we're seeing these incidents are changing? Or is a certain part of the population having a conversation with itself? I mean, can you reach people on the other side who see things differently?

MUHAMMAD: I think you can, but I think it takes time. And I think that part of the problem is that we have a scale problem. I think that policing in general - it's got to begin to reflect on the fact that people who they've been policing under various forms of zero tolerance policies or broken windows policies has created tremendous mistrust and done tremendous harm in those communities. And as such, every police encounter between a white collar and an African-American or Latino suspect doesn't come with a blank slate. It comes with the history. It comes with a present. And police agencies have to develop new training protocols that deliberately deal with that. I like to think that we could imagine a situation where these nuisance calls are quite distinctly handled from emergency phone calls, that they might even be channeled to specialized units that have done a little more deeper dive into this problem and can come out and have a conversation with people if they're going to come out at all.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Isn't the base of this, though, especially when we're talking about white people calling the police because they are suspicious of people of color or black people in their communities - isn't the base of this the fact that there is a sort of cultural conversation that says black people in white spaces means there's something criminal going on? You see it in films. You see it in all sorts of different messaging that white people often get. They're afraid when they see something different in spaces that they consider to be their own.

MUHAMMAD: Absolutely. What you're describing there is the longest story of America, which is a story that essentially said that this is a white European's country, and everyone else has to play by our rules, including when your presence is defined on very limited terms. And when you step out of that, which was the story that we know so well in the Jim Crow period, then you're subject to all sorts of sanctions, including death by a lynch mob. And so what I'm trying to suggest here is that we've got to come up with some policies that raise the costs of bad behavior, of treating people differently than you would want to be treated. And that is a problem of white fear being weaponized. And that is a problem of police officers being a little too prickly when people are upset about having been judged harshly or inappropriately.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Khalil Muhammad is a professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard. Thank you very much.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.